Let’s tackle the ‘controversy’ head-on. No, Nicole Kidman doesn’t really look like Lucille Ball, the beloved American TV star she portrays in this enthralling film from writer-director Aaron Sorkin. But no, it doesn’t really matter, because Kidman captures Ball’s essence – equal parts perky and plucky – in a way that feels authentic. If you’re only vaguely aware of Ball, best known for the iconic ’50s sitcom I Love Lucy, you’ll come away wanting to watch her greatest hits on YouTube.
In 1962, Ball became the first woman to run a major TV studio, Desilu Productions, which she co-founded with husband Desi Arnaz before buying him out following their divorce. However, Being the Ricardos hones in on their tempestuous relationship during a make-or-break week around a decade earlier. It’s 1953 and the husband-and-wife duo have become TV’s most popular couple thanks to I Love Lucy, an innovative sitcom that attracts 60million viewers a week. In addition to starring as the fictional couple Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, Ball and Arnaz have plenty of behind-the-scenes clout, but it’s all under threat because they’re scared Ball is about to be outed, inaccurately, as a communist. She also happens to be pregnant, something the conservative TV network and their prudish sponsors won’t like even though Ball is a married woman.
Though Ball makes the show’s formula sound simple at a table reading – Arnaz (Javier Bardem) delivers the jokes, she does physical comedy – Sorkin reveals the combination of brilliance and perfectionism behind it. As external pressure on her grows, intensified by the fact she also suspects Arnaz of infidelity, Ball focuses on the one thing she can control: the episode taping at the end of the week. She even summons co-stars William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) to the studio after midnight so they can punch up a scene she’s unhappy with. At times, her single-mindedness spills over into cruelty. When she discovers Vance is on a diet, she tells her co-star to stay the same weight as when she was cast. The average American woman, Ball explains brutally, wants to see someone who looks like her on TV.
Sorkin and Kidman portray Ball not just as a sitcom virtuoso, but also as a woman struggling to reconcile her professional success with her husband’s ego and wandering eye. In one of several flashbacks focusing on the couple’s pre-I Love Lucy relationship, we see that Ball only agreed to make the show if she could co-star opposite Arnaz, an accomplished musician who would otherwise have hit the road with his band. Wisely, Sorkin resists the urge to impose contemporary feminist values on a woman who never saw herself as an activist. Asked in 1980 if she was sympathetic with the women’s liberation movement, Ball replied revealingly: “They can use my name for equal rights, but I don’t get out there and raise hell because I’ve been so liberated I have nothing to squawk about.”
It’s doubly disappointing, then, when his script drops in an anachronistic reference to “gaslighting”, a term that’s only gained traction very recently. Still, this barely dents a cleverly written film that gives Arnaz his dues as a TV producer and businessman while casting a fresh eye on Ball’s remarkable talent. Being the Ricardos won’t make you love Lucy, necessarily, but it will make you admire and empathise with her.